A video showing a trash-strewn dormitory at the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge suggests in part a panicked escape as federal authorities cracked down on an armed occupation by anti-government activists in eastern Oregon.
But to many watching the ragtag occupation of the Malheur, the dormitory mess underscored deep and prevailing disdain not just toward public property, but the men and women in federal uniform who trek into America’s craggiest corners to make sure laws are followed.
A widespread backlash against the Malheur occupiers also suggests American sympathy for those who work for the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Department. Ten of the occupiers have been charged with threatening and interfering with the duties of a federal officer.
“As I understand it, some of the employees in Oregon, on the refuge, had to abandon their homes, [while] occupiers were reportedly in the homes, rifling through personal papers – I mean, holy cow!” says David Hayes, who served as deputy secretary of the Interior under President Obama. “I have tremendous respect for the public servants who are out there in the region, implementing Congress’ laws and looking out for the interest of all Americans, and trying to do their job. For this to become personalized against them is the biggest tragedy of what’s happening.”
To be sure, field rangers from the federal government have historically served as the face of Washington on the high plains. And while most Westerners see them as neighbors whose kids attend their schools, a significant subgroup of Westerners – often those bound by public land policies – see them as the enemy. As the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff and now the Oregon occupation may have shown, the hundreds of individual threats against federal employees may be evolving into a more organized movement, leaning on the Second Amendment as a guarantee against tyranny.
Malhuer also raises questions about where is this movement headed – and whether policies and rhetoric can be shifted to ease aggressions toward rangers over Western land use.
As opposed to the Waco and Ruby Ridge standoffs in the early 1990s and even the 2014 Bunkerville, Nev., standoff, “Malheur is the first real siege brought about by a group of occupiers on the offensive,” Jim Heim wrote this week in the Washington Post. “Whatever happens next … the Malheur occupation marks a dramatic turn in a long-simmering relationship between the federal government and radicals who view it as overreaching and corrupt.”
It’s difficult to track frequency of assaults or threats against federal land managers.
But a 2014 FOIA request by High Country News revealed an average of about 500 reported incidents a year, many of them disturbing. They include invective-filled insult sessions, threats of sniper fire, and actual federal employees being targeted with high-caliber bullets. In 2010, an incensed resident told agents he scopes federal employees with his rifle, and “knows where to dispose of bodies so they will not be found.”
Making it even more difficult for individual rangers in the West is a drumbeat of media criticism of federal agencies from perches as high as Congress, especially from the populist right.
“When the BLM tried to round up Bundy’s cattle for trespassing on federal land, some of Bundy’s crew took up sniper positions and threatened to shoot it out, so the BLM temporarily backed off to avoid bloodshed,” the High Country News wrote in its 2014 report, “Defuse the West.” “Right-wing talk shows instantly jumped to Bundy’s defense, lauding him as a hero fighting federal oppressors.”
But whether the number of assaults are going up or down, the intimidation and threat tactics alleged in the affidavits against the arrested Malheur occupiers fit what appears to be an intensifying pattern.
To some, that adversarial stance has become a replacement for mandated collaboration and cooperation that is built into federal land management statutes.
“I guess if we think that we can play in a sandbox where we argue about everything, know nothing about anything, do nothing about anything, and continue to blame it on someone else – if we think we can play in a sandbox without events like [the Malheur occupation] being the result we are kidding ourselves,” says Merrill Beyeler, a Republican state lawmaker in Idaho, and a lifetime Lemhi County rancher.
The conflict appears fueled by broader shifts in the US economy, including a move in the West away from high-pay of natural resource exploration industries (oil, gas, timber, ranching) to the lower pay but steadier employment of a tourism services economy. It also ties into simmering resentments over a struggling middle class and the gradual tipping of American demographics away from a white majority, symbolized by the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.
“The pain that a lot of these folks feel, that pain is real, it’s legitimate and it’s heartfelt,” says John Ruple, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. “But the response to it hasn’t always been the best, and is not always helpful.”
Even those who say they don’t support the armed occupation tactic on public lands suggest that getting in the face of federal rangers has been at least in part successful.
After all, the US government stood down from the Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014, and Mr. Bundy has yet to pay his $1 million in grazing fees owed. Indeed, it dovetails into a broader legislative movement in the West and even Congress to scale back the federal government’s role in managing the wealth of the West.
“The message that came out was a message that America and the western United States needed to hear,” B.J. Soper, a member of the Pacific Patriots Network, told the Washington Post. “Change is going to happen out here in the West because of what they’ve done.”
The standoff also signaled, to some, a new era of armed pushback as citizens test the Second Amendment’s guarantee of defense against tyranny. But it’s not Washington bureaucrats or policy makers in the line of fire. It’s the local forest ranger.
A decade ago, a rancher named Wally Klump was sent to jailed for contempt of court after dismissing BLM rules for public grazing rights. Mr. Klump warned the New York Times in 2004 that the gun might be the final solution for the West’s problems.
“The Second Amendment is my ace, and they know it’s my ace,” he told the paper. “The founding fathers gave the individual a gun to fight the tyranny of the government. What’s that mean? The bearer can kill someone in government if the reason is justified. But it’s never been tested. I told them, you take those cows, I’ll kill you as mandated by the Second Amendment.”
The shooting of occupier spokesman LaVoy Finicum on Tuesday certainly again raises the stakes. Some have called it an ambush execution. But other so-called patriot groups that have been active in land use issues in the West have called for calm. The FBI released a video showing Mr. Finicum at first with his hands up, but then reaching twice toward a pocket, which turned out to contain a loaded handgun, before being shot.
An underlying problem for federal rangers is that, in some ways at least, they’ve been hung out to dry on the range. In a 2015 report, the US Forest Service reported that the steady growth of Western wildfires had sucked the agency’s non-fire funds dry, creating tensions as delays fueled a sense among locals that federal agencies take arbitrary actions. Because of a $115 million dip in funding, “the agency [has had] to forego opportunities to … meet public expectations for services,” the report, “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations,” stated.
Others say the onus to ease tensions in the West falls on folks like the Malheur occupiers, whose goals, these critics argue, are ultimately unilateral and unworkable.
“That’s my frustration with everything that’s gone on this last month – I think it’s a distraction from where attention should be,” says Mr. Beyeler, the Idaho rancher. Instead of working toward solving the West’s problems, the occupiers “disrupted a community, created more conflict, and polarized people.”
One irony is that the US Fish and Wildlife Service published in 2013 a collaborative plan for how to manage the Malheur for the next 15 years. Among the collaborators were environmentalists and ranchers, county commissioners and conservationists.
“It wasn’t some faceless bureaucrat in Washington putting together that plan, it was local neighbors who worked together,” says Mr. Hayes, the former deputy Interior secretary. Going forward, “I think the federal government has to continue to do that and do it better, and really, really focus on working closely with local communities.”